Nacoa CEO, Hilary Henriques MBE, appeared on Woman’s Hour (25th May 2017) as a feature guest for their ‘series on people who grew up with an alcoholic parent’. Hilary was a co-founder of Nacoa, and has been its CEO for the entirety of its 27 years helping people affected by their parent’s drinking problems.
It’s no exaggeration to say there are few people in the world who have been at the coal face of parental alcohol problems for as long as Hilary. Read below for the verbatim transcript.
How much help can, or should, a son or daughter be expected to give to an alcoholic parent, and how successful is their support likely to be? Well Hilary Henriques is the Chief Executive of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and she joins us from Bristol.
Hilary, that question, how much support should a child be expected to offer?
I think that what we need to do is understand that children of alcoholics have often grown up taking responsibility for their parent’s drinking, even from a very early age. So I think it’s very natural for some of us to want to continue that, and to believe that all we’ve got to do is to get someone to stop drinking and then everything will be okay. And, of course, it doesn’t work like that.
For some people, though, they don’t want to help, and they don’t see why they should help, and I would say to them, that’s up to them. Because, at the end of the day, we all need to look after ourselves, because if we don’t look after ourselves we can’t look after anyone else, either.
Now one of the questions that Camilla [a case study from Woman’s Hour] and her father raised was this genetic question, where she said that she had at times drunk too much and then asked, ‘is there a gene?’—is there?
Well, I don’t really think anyone knows if there’s an actual gene, but there has been lots of research and it seems to be that there’s something in the reward pathway in the brain—I’m not a scientist so I’m paraphrasing—which works differently for some people who have a propensity to drink alcohol [problematically]. They do it because it surpasses all the other rewards that we give ourselves. So—I don’t know let’s think—instead of lying down in a quiet room because you’ve got a headache, or maybe taking paracetamol, drink will cure that. You feel a bit rotten, you’ve got no friends, and instead of going out and talking to someone, or to spend time with people, what you do is drink.
And for people with a drink problem, drink seems to surpass everything else. So it becomes a coping mechanism, which sounds daft, but if we understand it like that then I think we can better understand why really wonderful, brilliant, loving human beings often drink too much.
We heard that Camilla’s father has had a wobble. How does a supportive child cope with the terrible disappointment when a relapse happens?
It is a terrible disappointment, there’s no doubt about that. I think it’s also important to remember that these terrible disappointments will have been going on throughout childhood. I guess what that means is that it’s almost like—you know—when you have disappointment on disappointment it doesn’t get better—you don’t get used to it. You may get used to it on the surface, but underneath, what you’re constantly dealing with, is the backlog of disappointments, too.
I think the way through is to talk and to find someone you trust, that you can talk to. Never bottle things up inside. Make sure you speak to someone who is not going to judge you, or really have a very, very pointed point of view. Because at the end of the day, it’s you, the child of an alcoholic, who’s had the whole experience. And so in a way, you are an expert in your own life. And lots of children become experts in their parents’ lives too.
But if a parent can’t stop drinking, then, what we need to do is to make a choice for ourselves and think about what we can do, what we can’t do, and try to get to a place where we can sleep at night, and know that we have done all that we can.
What’s the best way, Hilary, to handle other family members that may not be so supportive because they’re angry, or just don’t accept there’s a problem?
I think the family member thing is a really difficult problem, again, because two siblings from the same home may have had very different experiences. And I think, in a way, it’s about learning about ourselves—what we want, what we need—and understanding that it’s not always possible to persuade a brother or a sister, or an uncle or an aunt, or a mother who doesn’t drink or a father who doesn’t drink, to understand it from the way we do.
Being the child of an alcoholic means that there’s been lots and lots of uncertainty; there have been lots of broken promises. There will be lots of different ways that children adapt, within the family, to take account of the drinking. And, so, families are complicated anyway—and then you add drink into the mix and it’s even more complicated. Lots of issues will be talked about, but it’s not only about what’s happening at that moment: it will be the backlog of pain, a lot of emotional pain.
What’s the best way to handle it if you think they’re drinking in secret?
Okay, drinking in secret, it’s—again—talk about it. I think that what we do, very often, is we’re really hopeful and we keep hoping, and keep hoping, until something happens, a crisis happens, and then we’re overwhelmed by the crisis. Then we end up in a cycle, really. So I think, if someone’s drinking in secret, there is a chance they will be able to hear at that point because they’re doing it in secret, so they know that they’re drinking has been spoiled in a way. They can no longer think about it as a coping mechanism. Or something that is going to get you up in the morning, or something that’s going to get you to bring the kinds to school or something. It then is seen as a problem.
But for some people, they don’t stop drinking, but for lots of people they do. And what we’ve found at Nacoa is that, when people are really dead-set on wanting help for their parents, what we will do is help talk things through, help them to see what they can do, understand what they can’t do, make a plan—so, if he or she drinks again, this is what I’m going to do. And that takes away that terrible, overwhelming disappointment, really.
What do you say to the child who says, ‘I’ve tried, I’ve tried, I can’t try any more—and I feel terribly guilty’?
That’s such a common problem, and what we will do is to listen to what they’ve got to say; we will feed back to them things that they have done; we will start exploring with them ways that they can do something in their own lives, irrespective of whether their parent drinks, or drinks again. I think, in a way, what children of alcoholics don’t have is someone to mirror them as children, and, in fact, it’s sort of like that role, which is usually one where parent’s mirror their children—children end up mirroring for parents. So we often have a diffuse sense of identity.
And it’s just getting kids to talk about themselves a bit, and what they like doing—they probably don’t even know what they like doing, because they’ve been spending their lives watching their mum or dad drink, and trying to change it. So it’s about intervening in a way that, [Donald] Winnicott calls it, a ‘teachable moment’: a moment when a child of an alcoholic knows that you can see them as they are, you still care about them, and that there is more to life then drinking. And what they can do, with some help, if they accept it, go on to live really good lives, irrespective of whether they drink or not.
Hilary Henriques, thank you very much for being with us, this morning.